It all began with outbreaks of discontent in the villages.
Day by day bad omens began to appear in the poorer areas. An old farmer of Galenne saw the form of a fiery chariot in the sky. In Sareaux an ignorant old woman croaked out oracles couched in the purest Latin. Rumors went around of a cross in an out-of-the-way church which burned for three days with a green flame and was not consumed. Our Lady appeared to a blind peasant beside a fountain one night, and when the priests fed him wine he described the vision in scriptural language.
The faithful seemed to detect a kind of malicious joy fermenting throughout the winter in the dwellings of the accursed Jews.
Strange things happened. Bands of dark wanderers, huge and black as bears, appeared simultaneously in several places. Even educated folk could sense at times a murmur gnawing inside them. There was no peace to be had.
In Clermont, in the year of the Incarnation of Our Lord Jesus Christ 1095, Pope Urban II summoned the flocks of God to an expedition to liberate the Holy Land from the hands of the infidel, and to expiate their sins through the hardships of the journey—for spiritual joy is achieved through suffering.
Early in the autumn of the following year, four days after the end of the grape harvest, the noble Count Guillaume of Touron set out at the head of a small troop of peasants, serfs, and outlaws from his estate near Avignon and headed toward the Holy Land, to take part in its deliverance and so to find peace of mind.
Besides the blight which had afflicted the vines and the shriveling of the grapes, and besides gigantic debts, there were other, more immediate reasons which moved the noble Count to set out on his journey. We are informed of these in the chronicle of an extraordinary young man who himself took part in the expedition, Claude, nicknamed “Crookback.” He was a distant relative of the Count and had grown up on his estate.
This Claude was perhaps the adoptive heir of the childless Count, perhaps a mere hanger-on. He was literate and almost cultivated, though prone to alternating violently between fits of depression and enthusiasm. He would give himself over by turns, restlessly and without any real satisfaction, to ascetic practices and to the delights of the flesh. He was a great believer in the power of the supernatural: he kept company with half-wits, fancying he found in them a holy spark, and much-thumbed books and peasant women alike fired him with a wild desire. His excesses of religious fervor and gloomy melancholy inspired feelings of contempt and loathing in others and consumed his very flesh from off his bones, kindling an evil flame in his eye.
As for the Count, the Count treated Claude Crookback with sullen toleration and ill-suppressed rudeness. Some uncertainty, in fact, prevailed at court about the status and privileges of this young but silver-haired fellow who had, apart from everything else, a violent and ridiculous love of cats and who was a passionate collector of women’s jewelry.
Claude mentions in his chronicle, among the factors which prompted the Count to set out on his journey, certain events which occurred in swift succession in the course of the preceding year.
“At the beginning of the autumn,” he writes, “in the year of Our Lord’s Incarnation 1096, the sin of arrogance raised its head among the peasantry. There occurred on our estate several cases of insolence and insubordination, such as the destruction of part of the meager crop, motivated by anger at its very meagerness; daggers were stolen, the river flooded, barns were fired, falling stars were seen, sorcery was practiced, and mischievous pranks were played. All this within the confines of our domains, apart from numerous crimes in the neighboring districts and even across the river. Indeed, it was found necessary to oil the torture-wheel once again, and to put to the test several rebellious serfs, so as to quell the rising fever of violence, for suffering begets love. On our estate seven peasants and four witches were put to death. In the course of their torture their crimes came to light, and light purges all sin.
“In addition during the autumn our young mistress Louise of Beaumont showed the first signs of falling sickness, the very disease which had carried off her predecessor, two years earlier.
“On Easter Day the Count carried his drinking beyond all reasonable limits, and on this occasion he did not succeed in soaring above the state of tipsy rage to the heights of drunken joy. There occurred episodes,” continues the chronicler in a rather veiled tone, “such as what happened that night, when the Count smashed six valuable drinking-vessels, family heirlooms; he hurled these gorgeous objects at the serving-men in reprisal for some fault whose nature was not clear. Injuries were done; blood was spilled. The Count made reparation for his error with constant silent prayers and fasting, but the fragments of the shattered goblets could not be pieced together—I have them all in my keeping still. What is done is done, and there is no going back.”
Claude also writes as follows:
In the early days of the summer, in the course of the barley harvest, the Jewish agent fell under suspicion. He was put to death in consequence of his fervent protestations of innocence. The spectacle of the burning of the Jew might have served to dispel somewhat the anxiety and depression which had caught hold of us since the autumn, but it so happened that the Jew, as he was being burned, succeeded in upsetting everything by pronouncing a violent Jewish curse on Count Guillaume from the pyre. This terrible event occurred in the presence of the whole household, from the ailing lady down to the most ignorant servant girls. Obviously it was impossible to punish the wretch for his curses: It is in the nature of these Jews only to burn once.
In the course of the summer our lady’s condition grew worse and her life was in danger. Without grace even love is of no avail. It was a pitiful spectacle. So grievous were her agonies, so loud her screams in the night, that the Count was finally compelled to shut up in the tower the most delicate of the flowers of his garden. Therefore was the Son of God meek and mild when He bore our sufferings upon Himself, that we might know and remember that the finest harvest of all is when the hardest blade cleaves the softest earth in God’s world and this was a sign for us. By night, by day and by night, the Count gave orders for vigils of prayer at the cell of our ailing lady.
Our lady was young in years and her pale face seemed ever filled with wonder. Her limbs were delicate and she seemed completely transparent, as if made of spirit, not of base matter. She floated away downstream from us before our very eyes. Sometimes we could hear her voice raised in song; sometimes we secretly gathered up her tear-soaked handkerchief, and in the small hours of the morning we heard her cry out to the Blessed Virgin. Then her silence would rend the air. These days saw a severe deterioration in the affairs of the estate. The creditors were arming themselves, and even the peasantry nursed a muttering rebelliousness.
All speech was hushed in our halls. So frail and white-faced did our lady appear that kneeling at the foot of the cross, she seemed to us like Our Lady Herself. She was flickering and dying away. Meanwhile the Count withdrew into silence, and merely kept on buying more and more fine horses—far in excess of the needs of the fields and vineyards. He paid for them with parcels of woodland and orchards, since the money he had was being steadily eaten up.
Early one morning our lady suddenly heard the gentle sound of the bells of the village church. She put her golden head out through the lattice, and when the sun rose she was found gathered into the bosom of the Saviour. Her sandals are still kept in the chest in our hall, together with two tiny bracelets and a green cross of pearls which she wore round her neck, exceedingly fair.
The chronicle of this relative of the Count also contains some turbid musings, fraught with confusions, written in troubled and disconnected Latin. Some of them may be quoted here:
There is a secret sign-language which weaves a net between inanimate objects. Not a leaf falls to the ground without the action of some design. A man of the brooding type, such as my noble lord Guillaume de Touron, if he is but cut off for a while from the sphere of action, is immediately liable to come under the influence of the supernatural. If he is not found worthy of grace, it enters into his vitals like a gnawing poison, unseen, unfelt but lethal. Like the anguish of vast plains scorched by the noonday sun, without a single man to cast a shadow. Scents borne on the breeze. Woods, restful yet menacing. Perhaps the allure of the ocean. Or the tender, bitter silence of distant mountains. So a man of the finer breed, in the middle of his life, toward evening, as the wind drops, may suddenly pause and shrink back, shrink back listening with all his might, and as he listens he gnaws incessantly at his soul. For all these reasons, then, and for others which cannot be put into words, Guillaume de Touron set out for the Holy Land, bent on taking part in its deliverance and thereby also on finding inner peace.
Slumped in his saddle like a weary hunter, his features hewn of granite, his skull big and broad, the Count led his company up through the Rhone lands toward the town of St.-Étienne. There, at St.-Étienne, he meant to break the journey and stay for a day or two. Claude Crookback supposes that he wanted to spend some time at the Cathedral in solitary prayer, to ask the bishop’s blessing for the expedition and to buy fodder and arms. Perhaps he also intended to take on a few knights as mercenaries. The roads are fraught with danger outside the city walls; the sword must hew out a path for the forces of grace.
The Count rode his mare Mistral. His pace was still leisurely. This was not due to hesitancy, nor to that calm which follows the moment of self-dedication; there was simply a gradual gathering of momentum. The mare Mistral was a massive, broad-built creature, just like her master. At first sight she seemed like a work-horse. She could never be roused to the point of anger, thanks to a kind of feigned modesty which extended over all her movements, like a sort of inner deliberation—placid, ruminative, almost sanctimonious. But at a second, more penetrating glance—when one noticed, for instance, her capricious manner while being harnessed or unharnessed—one could see quite clearly that just as it was impassible to arouse her, so it was completely and utterly impossible to enforce total submission on this mare Mistral.
And everywhere could be felt the creeping, fawning intensification of the forces of autumn on the plains and in the hills. The odors of the vintage everywhere accompanied the expedition on its way. It was like a constant melody, soft yet at the same time penetrating and persistent.
The signs of the drought and the blight on the vines were everywhere plain to see. The faces of the peasants bore expressions of muted, ill-suppressed malice.
Even in times of plenty these districts ever gaze up to the gray sky with a tight-lipped look: mudspattered peasants, rotting roofs of thatch, clumsy crosses like the very faith of the region—blunt and strong, row upon row of black haystacks, and at dawn and at dusk there comes rolling from afar the sound of rustic bells, calling to the Saviour out of the depths.
At these twilight hours one could also make out the taut lines of powerful birds in flight—and the sudden screeching of these birds. In everything could be seen the mounting evidence of a heavy, thick reality—or, at a second glance, the slight impulse of some abstract purpose.
Everything, even the silent, baffled docility of the plump peasant girls who paused to gaze from a safe distance at the company of men on horse-back—everything was somehow open to several interpretations.
Had Guillaume de Touron considered the possible interpretations? If so, he did not show it on the surface. His few, brief words of command bore witness to an inner remoteness. It was as if he were sunk deep in a problem of logic or preoccupied in the checking of books which would not balance. Our chronicler, Claude, who frequently noticed his lord’s silences, was sometimes inclined to attribute to him abstract speculations or spiritual exercises. In short, it was sometimes felt that the Count omitted to answer questions, or answered without being asked. “Come here!” he would say, or “Leave it!” “Now!” “Fetch it!” “Forward!”
Those who heard these orders might easily have imagined they were uttered by someone who was about to fall asleep, or who was struggling to rouse himself from a deep slumber.
Nevertheless, the man surrounded himself with a cool ring of lordliness, which needed neither effort nor stress; a strong, inborn quality, compelling fear and silence even while he slept, a crouching wolf.
An inborn quality. In Claude’s chronicle one can read a short description of the appearance and bearing of the Count at the start of the expedition, and also a comparison which—after the manner of the chronicler—is rather fulsome:
Truth to tell, the bearing of Count Guillaume de Touron was not only extremely natural and composed, but entirely free from doubts and excitements. It was like a gentle stream, which wends its way calmly among the meadows of a plain. Placid and leisurely it flows, never tearing at its banks or throwing up waves or spray, but everything which falls into the current is swept constantly on by a force which is neither friendly nor yet timid—a peaceful, inexorable stream.
At dusk on the third day of their journey the band of believers reached the gates of St.-Étienne. They handed over their weapons to the officer of the gate, they paid all the dues, sacred and secular, they submitted to a personal inspection at the hands of the guards, lest there should be found among them an invalid or a Jew, and finally the Count and his men were permitted to enter the city. The ignorant folk stroked and chewed their beards at the sight of such plenty of women, priests, traders, and merchandise.
In the square behind the Hospice of the Sacred Heart, Guillaume de Touron reviewed his men. He gave orders for the horses to be well fed, set guards over the baggage and animals, distributed two pieces of silver per head, and gave the men leave to disperse around the town until daybreak the next day, “so that they might satisfy their needs with women and drink, and also purify their souls with prayer.”
The Count himself, after a slight hesitation, chose in the first place to make his way to the Cathedral. Above all he sought peace of mind. As often happens to men who are looking for something the nature of which is unknown to them, he felt a kind of vague physical unrest, as if his body were rebelling against his soul and defiling it with evil vapors. His body was tough, massive, and compact, his head held slightly forward, as if the weight of the world hung more heavily upon him than upon the mass of ordinary believers.
On his way to the Cathedral there passed through his mind the forms of the death of his two wives, the second and also the first. He contemplated the forms which death had taken like a man looking at the shapes of icicles in the winter. He felt no sorrow for these women, the second or the first, because neither had presented him with a son and heir. But he saw quite vividly that their death was the beginning of his own death. He visualized his death as a far-off place to which one must go, climbing perhaps or breaking through by force, and he joined together with a blind and stubborn bond the words “to redeem,” “to be redeemed,” “to set fire,” “to go up in flames.” Summer by summer, almost day by day, he felt his blood running colder. He did not know the reason, but he silently yearned for simple elements—light, warmth, sands, fire, wind.
Meanwhile Claude Crookback went down to a house of ill-repute on the edge of the town. He found a woman of easy virtue, dressed her up in his clothes and put his cloak around her, and handed her his knife. Then he stretched out on the ground for her to trample on him and begged to be tortured. While writhing with her, drenched with sweat, Claude screamed and laughed, cried and talked continuously. In the confused account which he composed that same night in his cell in the Hospice of the Sacred Heart he does not wallow in the details of his sin but limits himself to an enthusiastic description of the eternal power of grace. Does not the sun deign to be reflected even in pools of mire without withdrawing its reflection?
The worthy bishop of St.-Étienne, a small, rotund, simple man, was sitting motionless in his study, contemplating his hands stretched out before him on the table, or perhaps contemplating the table itself, and cautiously digesting his dinner. Guillaume de Touron’s expression as he suddenly entered the study, half-blocking the doorway with his bulk, was—as the bishop himself later described it in his diary—“clouded in a manner which implied either abstraction or concentration, two states of mind which are far harder to distinguish by their outward indications than is commonly supposed.”
After Mass the bishop and his guest sat down to a meal. They permitted each other a small drink, after which they closeted themselves together in the library. The light of ten great candles in copper candlesticks wove intricate patterns on their faces, on the curved outlines of the objects in the room. It exaggerated every movement and translated it into a language of gloomy shadows. Here the bishop and his guest conducted a brief conversation which touched on the subjects of the quality of humility, the City of God, horses and hunting dogs, the hardships of the journey and its chances of success, the Jews, the price of woodland, and the varieties of signs and wonders.
The knight soon fell silent and let the bishop of St.-Étienne talk on alone. The bishop, as we read in the studied Latin of his diary, “was delighted by the intelligent and thoroughly polite, yet extraordinarily restrained attentiveness” of his guest.
Finally, well after midnight, by the failing light of the candles, Count Guillaume de Touron requested and received from the bishop of St.-Étienne a general and absolute remission of sins. The bishop also bestowed on his guest some useful information on the state of the roads, the subtlety of the Devil and the stratagems by which he can be circumvented, the sources of the sacred river Jordan and the Sea of Galilee, the gold of the Jews, the abominable acts of the Greeks and the means of preserving oneself from them. It was an hour of shadowy silence. Out of the depths of the silence came a slight rustling, as if there were someone else in the Cathedral, nursing a different intention.
The guest entrusted to the servant of God a donation for the use of the church. Then he took his leave. He walked out into the warm darkness, into the realm of the night.
Before retiring to his chaste bed, the bishop made a point of adding a few lines to his diary, which took the form of a rather remarkable observation, even allowing for the late hour.
“I am prepared to swear on oath now,” writes the pious cleric, “that the man did not utter more than a hundred words in the course of the four hours which he spent with me in this holy place. It is amazing, almost uncanny, that we did not remark this extreme silence until after the man had taken his leave and departed. His silence succeeded in disguising itself completely. This is the first time since we entered on our vocation,” the bishop writes in astonishment, “that we have granted remission of sins to a believer and even blessed his journey without his having felt himself obliged to confess to us even one slight sin of the many sins of which this world is so regrettably full. Worse still, the very strange and suspicious secretiveness with which Count Guillaume de Touron treated us remained concealed from us until after the man had left our presence. Naturally we could not chase after him and bring him back out of the darkness. We are obliged, then, even post eventum, to exercise to the full the faculty of strict justice, and to conclude here that it is likely that we have for once been deceived in a sly, calculating, distinctly un-Christian way.
“On the other hand, we are equally obliged to exercise the quality of mercy, and to record herein that his silence, in common with certain other signs of suffering which we fancied we observed on the countenance of Guillaume de Touron, may be interpreted as indications of humility and of spiritual suffering. And are not these two, humility and suffering, outstanding Christian virtues? May God have mercy upon us.”
The expedition set out from St.-Étienne and turned eastward toward Grenoble. It crossed the river and streamed through dense autumnal forests. For the autumn was cautiously gathering strength, as though first testing the powers of resistance of the river, of the hills, and of the forest before falling on them.
At the outskirts of the villages stood rugged, bowed peasants, gazing motionless from afar at the passing procession. The Jews, as though forewarned, abandoned their hovels and disappeared into the undergrowth before the approach of the expedition. Out of the darkness of the woods they seemed to be rousing the forces of evil against us by muttering spells and incantations.
How unaware we are, mere creatures of flesh and humors and blood, of the unseen, powerful web of God’s actions around us!
Guillaume de Touron knew this, and so he told Claude in camp one night: Sometimes the curse of God comes like the caress of a woman’s hand, and sometimes His blessing comes like a knife in the flesh. The appearance of a thing or its effect is not its essence. Take the curse and the wrath which God unleashed against the Jews. See how God’s curse has refined this tribe. These people are fine and subtle; even our own language when it comes from their mouths is somehow suddenly turned to wine.
The thought of the Jews excited an inner panting in Count Guillaume de Touron—a strong, dark purpose, gloomy and filled with cold joy.
Claude Crookback, for his part, was idly musing about the wives of these Jews—warm, moist, brown velvet bitches.
The Jews, thought Guillaume de Touron, are stealthily nibbling away at us, like water eating away iron. This is the soothing touch, which melts unseen. Even the sword—our sword—passes through them as through a mass of turbid water which will slowly consume it. Gracious Lord, have pity on Thy flock, for the forces of defilement rage enflamed all around us, and temptation encircles us, trying to break in. And the faith in our hearts is upright and cold, barren and very sad. Is it possible perhaps that a Jew has insinuated himself into our ranks by stealth?
Guillaume de Touron was suddenly overpowered by this suspicion, and he found himself waking out of his slumber. A warm thaw started to move inside him, and made him feel better. Perhaps he had been granted a sign or a hint. In his heart he seemed to say “here,” “there,” “now.”
The appearance of the expedition was distorted when reflected upside down in the streams, or when seen from afar. Water and distance had the quality of turning any movement to utter mockery.
Along the lines of hills whose green grew ever darker appeared first of all three knights on horseback, wrapped in white cloaks. A rough black cross was embroidered on their cloaks in front and behind, as if they had been run through with swords and the wounds had long since turned black. They rode on tall, brown horses. From a distance it seemed as if the hooves of the horses hardly touched the ground.
Behind them rode the Count, surrounded by his retinue, mounted and clad in helmets and coats of mail. The Count himself was dressed in hunting-gear and leaned in the saddle on his mare Mistral as though he found it exhausting to ride. Was he, as Claude says, already somewhat ill at this stage of the expedition? The question is a foolish one. Almost everyone knows that illness is a configuration of inner possibilities too numerous to count.
Claude, by contrast, was easily recognizable, both by his deformity and by his flashy yellow shield, glinting like false gold.
Behind the Count’s retinue hurried some three-dozen men on foot. In the rear guard trudged mules laden with provisions, wagons rolling on wooden wheels, slaves and camp-followers, a few women who had attached themselves to the expedition, two cows plundered from farmers along the way, some goats, and at the tail end of the procession and on both its flanks dozens of dogs, skinny, misshapen, malicious mongrels, aimlessly darting hither and thither.
The motley cavalcade flowed past mournful autumn fields as if irresistibly drawn by some invisible lodestone.
The autumn was folding everything into the embrace of a thick mist. The gathering dampness spread over everything. It seemed as though the autumn were being malevolently formed according to a careful plan: a damp, dark condensation in the woods; a gray vapor in the valleys; a tense calm projecting quivering forms on the horizon. And still the rains held back.
The days, the nights, the hours of twilight in between, were like a dream-journey in which the distance becomes a malleable substance, always prone to be distorted. Even the wild shouts of joy of the rough good-for-nothings around the camp-fire at night were immediately absorbed into the distance and reflected back purged by the alchemy of autumn and melancholy, far slower and deeper sounds than when they left the mouths of those base fellows.
Sometimes toward dawn, before the camp was woken out of its slumber by the clatter of iron pots, by the jangling of spurs and the neighing of horses, Claude would be flooded with piety and would rouse his lord for matins. Then, at the hour of prayer, the world would show itself and would overpower everything with its unbelievable peace. This was a gloomy peace, the sadness of barren hills which are no longer hills but the very soul of the hills, the earth arching up in longing to the clouds in a seductive gesture which no satisfaction will ever eradicate.
And in the depths of the silence, the body itself began suddenly to yearn for its own extinction. Fine vapor, it was felt, was the proper consistency. And the prayer struck home to the man at prayer.
A few times it happened that darkness fell while they were still in the depth of the forest. Then they would light a great fire in the middle and surround the camp with a close circle of small bonfires for fear of vampires, wolves, and demons.
If one looked upward one could see how the light of the fire was broken by the thick ceiling of leaves. Round about wolves howled, foxes’ eyes glinted, an evil bird screeched and shrieked. Or was it the wind? Or sinister imitations of the sound of fox, bird, and wind? Even the rustling of fallen leaves hinted perpetually at the certainty of another, a hostile camp whispering round about, encircling. The forces of grace were being besieged.
The first signs of an approaching conflict were concrete enough. Dogs would go mad now and again and have to be put down with an arrow or a spear-thrust. A horse suddenly broke its halter in the night and galloped off into the wild darkness as if it had chosen to turn wolf. One of the whores who had attached themselves to the army burst into shrieks and did not stop screaming for two days and three nights, under the influence of some spell or incubus. In the end they were compelled to abandon her to the devil who had seized hold of her. One day the Christians came to a spring, and, being parched, they drank and let their horses and servants drink, not realizing that the water was tainted. The water inflicted humiliating agonies on man and beast alike. Surely a Jew had mingled with the Christians in disguise, was walking along the way with us, and cursing us.
Even the villagers received them grimly. The travelers were compelled to extract provisions, women, and drink from the stubborn peasants by force of arms. Once or twice stiff skirmishes broke out in the villages and Christian blood was spilled in vain. The parsimony of these districts was coarse and sullen. Even for an expedition of knights traveling in the name of Jesus Christ to deliver the Holy Land, the villagers would not open their fists without a stroke of the sword to extract charity by force from their clenched grasp.
And yet in several villages there were women who came of their own volition after dark and silently offered their bodies. These village women were huge and strong as horses. Their silence during the act, their stiff and solid submission, was open to several interpretations—pride or modesty, dullness or rebellion. Claude, assailed by glimmerings of fevered fanaticism, would try his strength by admonishing these peasant women. He would get up and stand in front of them and speak with ecstatic piety of the Kingdom of Heaven, the corrupt nature of the flesh, of the happiness in store for those who give all with a cheerful spirit, “for to him that giveth shall it be given, and compassion shall be shown to him that hath compassion on others.”
Who can tell the number of those scattered villages on the fringes of the forest, in valleys without so much as a name, in great gorges swathed in mist, in the winding courses of forgotten brooks and streams? “It is God’s will,” writes Claude in his chronicle of the journey, “to scatter His flock to the ends of the earth so as to gather to His bosom once more on the day of judgment the few, the elect, the truly deserving.”
As for the Count, he drove his men just as he drove his mare Mistral. He did not give them his attention, yet his presence could not be forgotten for a moment. In his heart he was lonely. Remote from his fellow men. Remote from his surroundings, a stranger to the forest, ice-cold. And now, in its remoteness, this soul would converse with itself on the necessity of love. To love, to be loved, to belong, to be—Guillaume de Touron felt a wild desire to overpower or crush some obstacle whose nature was hidden from him until the day when he would be permitted to be born anew. His shattered thoughts played with various images of death, of alienation, breaking through. Like a drowning man struggling with his last reserves of strength to free himself from the grip of the water. But he did not know what the water was or how far the water stretched.
Outwardly he merely seemed silent and watchful. Straining his senses to the utmost, in the hope of hearing a voice. Afraid to open his mouth and speak, lest he should miss the voice: one cannot speak and listen at the same time. And yet Guillaume de Touron was endowed with a strange power over others. Despite his silence, he overran and choked everyone around him like a great creeper. Without intending to, he grasped and clung to everything, leaned on it with all his weight. It was a false impression that Count Guillaume de Touron, as often happens to men of his class, was a withdrawn and hesitant master, showing no reaction when his servants ran wild. A second glance would show that the reeds on which he leaned bent beneath him, while he, by the mere force of his character, twisted and crushed them unawares.
From time to time he would conjure up an image of Jerusalem, drawing ever closer, but he would dismiss these inner visions, for they did not satisfy him.
In camp, at prayer, as they drank from the cask or from mountain streams, Guillaume de Touron would cast a gloomy eye over each man in turn, trying to detect the hidden Jew.
By now his first suspicions had turned to utter certainty, as happens sometimes to a man who seems to hear in the distance a vague, menacing tune which makes him wonder whether or not it is really there. After a while, from the effort of listening, the tune begins to lead the listener astray, to come suddenly from inside him, from his very innards.
He surveyed his men, every single one of them, their expressions and gestures, eating, at play, in sleep, and on horseback. Is there any reason in looking for signs in the sensible sphere? And what is Jewish in a Jew?—surely not any outward shape or form but some abstract quality. The contrast does not lie even in the affections of the soul. Simply this: a terrible, a malignant presence. Is not this the essence of treachery: to penetrate, to be within, to interfuse, to put out roots and to flourish in what is most delicate. Like love, like carnal union. There is a Jew in our midst. Perhaps the Jew has divided himself up, and insinuated himself partly here, partly there, so that not a man of us has escaped contagion.
Once, when the army had halted toward evening beside a Roman ruin whose remains were being eaten away by decay and strong roots, the Count turned to Claude Crookback with a question: Is it not written in one of those books that a wolf can insinuate himself so successfully into a flock of sheep that even a hunter cannot recognize him?
Claude’s reply, perhaps in a slightly improved version, appears in his chronicle:
I replied to this question from my lord the Count by means of a simple parable or allegory, in the spirit of the ancient wisdom. The sweetest apple is always the first to turn rotten. A wolf in sheep’s clothing would naturally exaggerate his disguise. This is a sign for us: Who was it who embraced our Saviour and kissed His cheek and reveled in honeyed words and signs of love, if not he who had sold Him for thirty pieces of silver, the traitor Judas Iscariot? The Devil is cunning, my lord, cunning and insidious, and we Christians are men of innocence. Without the grace of heaven we are trapped, every one of us, in the snare set at our feet.
Among them there was a piper, Andrés Alvárez by name. He was devoted to the slaves and outcasts and harlots and believed in the power of his music to soften even the most unruly spirit. He even experimented with the horses and dogs. He had forsworn meat and wine, and wore a heavy stone on a chain around his neck to humble himself to the dust, for he thought of himself as “meek and lowly.” Perhaps he was trying to purge his body of some sin he had committed or had intended to commit a long time before. He called himself “worthy of death,” and wanted to be killed on the road to Jerusalem. Suspicion fell on this man. He was ordered to pass his hand through the fire so that it could be ascertained what he was. Because of his terror, and perhaps indeed out of joy at the purifying ordeal which lay ahead, he was seized with great excitement and was bathed in sweat. When he passed his hand through the fire, it was as wet as if it had been soaked in water, so that he was only slightly scorched and the verdicts were divided. But, seeing that this Andrés pleaded with the Count to have him put to death because he was tainted with impurity, they spared him and let him live so that he could be kept under further observation.
There were also three Celts who were half-brothers. They were the sons of one woman by three different fathers. These three displayed an unwholesome disposition to burst into horrifying laughter at things which were no laughing matter, such as a dead fox, the stump of an oak struck by lightning, or a sobbing woman. They were also in the habit of lighting a small fire of their own at night and huddling around it secretively, talking all the time in an unknown language, full of harsh consonants.
Every Sunday the three half-brothers would celebrate an esoteric rite. Piling up heaps of stones, they would wring the neck of a bird and pour out its blood into a fire which they had lit in the hollow of the stones. Perhaps they used to conjure up by this means the soul of their mother.
The Celtic brothers were also gifted with extraordinary powers of marksmanship, which did more than anything else to attract to them the icy glances of the Count. Expertly they would amuse themselves by firing an arrow into the air and piercing it with another in mid-flight. Several times they hurled a stone in the dark and brought down a night bird in pitch darkness, guided by the sound of its wing-beats alone.
One evening Claude Crookback was sent to tell them to moderate their laughter, as befits men on a holy mission, to stop talking among themselves in their pagan tongue, and to allow him to inspect their baggage. In addition, Claude resolved inwardly to find a suitable opportunity to examine each of them while they were passing water so as to make certain that none of them was circumcised.
Claude, it must be admitted, loved these errands, because he felt himself humiliated by them. For the humble shall be exalted and the lowly of spirit shall be raised up.
From Grenoble the expedition continued to move slowly eastward.
The Count chose to keep away from the main roads. He was attracted to forgotten regions. Sometimes he even decided to abandon the lanes and to cut across the heathland and forest. It was not the shortest route that he preferred, but the most forsaken. In practice, Guillaume de Touron set his course afresh every morning: he simply rode in the direction of the sunrise, and continued riding until the rays of the setting sun struck his helmet from behind. He put a simple explanation on the laws of nature: Whoever moves toward the light moves toward the Holy City. Insofar as it was granted to this weary soul to feel love, he loved Jerusalem. He firmly believed that in Jerusalem it is possible to die and be born again pure.
And so, while the autumn beat on their backs with fists soft as a caress, the travelers crossed the foothills of the mountains, felt their way through misty glens, and gradually advanced down the slopes toward the valley of the River Po. There was not a man among them who had ever seen the sea. Perhaps they imagined that the sea would appear to them as an exceedingly broad river, that if they strained their eyes they would see the opposite shore and discern the suggested outlines of towers, walls, lofty steeples, a high halo of light, a holy brightness hovering over the City of God on the other side.
Meanwhile, all along the way, they sustained themselves on what the villagers offered them at the sight of the sword. They made detours around the towns and the estates of noblemen, as if they were constantly avoiding an outstretched net.
Several times on the way they met other companies of knights also making their way to the Holy Land. The Count was not willing to join those who were greater than himself and would not condescend to annex to his band those who were smaller. As they had set out from their own land, so he wanted them to arrive at the Holy City: few but pure.
One day they were almost compelled to hew their way by force of arms. Near a small village by the name of Argentera, beside the well on the way into the village, Guillaume de Touron was surprised to come across a heavy force of crusaders, at least three times as large as his own band. These were Teutonic knights with a large crowd of followers, and at their head was a young knight, beautiful in appearance and haughty of mien, Albrecht of Brunswick by name.
This was a magnificent expedition: respectable matrons borne in litters curtained with silk, a company of elderly lords in costumes of scarlet, gold-buttoned, a company of, young lords wearing long, pointed helmets tipped with a silver cross, attendants decked out in velvet liveries, banners and standards borne by scar-faced standard-bearers. There were also crowds of priests, jesters and easy women, beasts and animals. All this great abundance was carried in broad wagons the like of which has not been seen in our country. The sides of the wagons were painted all around with detailed scenes from the lives of our Lord and His Apostles, all of whom the artist had chosen to portray with stern expressions.
Albrecht of Brunswick deigned to dismount first and present himself to the lesser lord. He delivered himself of a long succession of greetings in florid Latin. He also uttered words of enticement. It was clear that he proposed to take this smaller party which had crossed his path under his wing. But when, after the formulas of greeting were finished, Guillaume de Touron maintained a frigid reserve, and refrained from fulfilling the obligations of Christian fellowship, even responding to the greetings as though they were also farewells, the German smiled a faint smile and gave orders to unseat the stranger from his horse and to annex his band by force.
Before he had finished issuing the order there was a clatter as every sword was drawn. Horses began to rear and neigh and their skins rippled like pools of water in a breeze. A great movement took hold of the men, and glittered on spears and helmets. Instantly the band raised their instruments and started to play with fierce joy. Wild yet spectacular was the sudden melee of horses, banners, and accoutrements, dust, shouts, and war-cries, as if a colorful dance had suddenly broken loose on those gloomy plains. Even the cries of the first casualties of battle resembled from a distance the clamor of reveling merrymakers. Everyone, even the dying men, clung faithfully to a certain style and would not depart from it by a hair’s-breadth.
And so, quite soon, the knight from Brunswick said, “Stay,” and the herald called, “Stay.”
At once Guillaume de Touron, too, raised his visor. The music stopped and the fighting died down. The men stood where they were, breathing heavily, trying to calm their quaking mounts. Soon they began to drink, and to offer one another German ale and Avignon wine from hairy flasks. The musicians, of their own accord, immediately began to play a different tune. While the officers were still busy separating the last hot-blooded skirmishers, laughter had spread all around, the warriors blasphemed and laughed.
Among the Germans there was a holy physician. He and his assistants went through the battlefield and picked out the wounded from the dead. He tended the wounded on both sides and the dead were cast all together into the well, after sufficient water had been drawn for everyone’s needs. The casualties numbered fewer than a dozen dead, all from the lower elements on both sides, and their death did not mar the feelings of brotherhood which quickly sprang up of their own accord around common campfires. To those who forgive shall it be forgiven. As evening fell the priests celebrated a great mass, and in the night both sides together slaughtered cattle, said grace, ate, and drank. Toward dawn they exchanged women servants.
And so, toward dawn, Claude Crookback, drunk and foam-flecked, was sent to appease the knight from Brunswick with fifty pieces of silver as a toll and the price of peace, since Guillaume de Touron and his men were the smaller party.
Later, as the sun rose, Christian knight saluted Christian knight and both groups went their separate ways, holding high their banners and waving adieu. If sins had been committed, surely blood, prayer, and silver had made atonement. And the rain which came late in the morning, a very light and gentle rain, wiped away everything with its transparent fingers.
Next day they came upon a Jewish peddler by the wayside. He had a pair of goats with him and on his back was a knapsack. As the horsemen came downhill toward him he made no attempt to hide. He doffed his cap, smiled with all his might, and bowed three times, each time lower than the last. The procession drew to a halt. The Jew, too, stopped and laid his sack on the ground. The Christians were silent. The wayfarer, too, kept silent and did not dare utter a word. So he stood, by the side of the road, prepared to buy or to sell, to be slain or to deliver a polite reply to any remark which might be addressed to him. And he smiled with extreme concentration.
Claude Crookback said: “Jew.”
The Jew said: “Greetings, travelers. May your journey be blessed with success.” And immediately he tried again in another dialect and in another language, for he did not know which was their tongue.
Claude Crookback said: “Jew, where are you going?”
And without waiting for a reply, he added in a honeyed whisper: “The sack. Open that sack.”
Before he had stopped speaking the three Celtic half-brothers suddenly burst into shrill, loud laughter, very wild but entirely free from malice, as if they were being tickled under the armpits. The peddler opened his sack, bent down, and drew out an armful of knicknacks and gewgaws of the kind which are made to amuse small children, and said very happily: “Everything cheap. Everything for coppers. Or we can arrange an exchange, for things no one wants anymore.”
Claude asked: “Why are you traveling, Jew? What makes you go from place to place?”
The Jew said: “Are we alone in the world, gracious knight? Can a man choose for himself to go or not to go?”
Thereupon there was a silence. Even the Celtic brothers fell quiet. As if of her own accord, the mare Mistral moved forward and carried the Count into the center of the ring of horsemen. The smell of the horses’ sweat spread around, pungent and menacing. The silence became more and more intense. A secret terror suddenly seized hold of the two goats, which were held by the Jew on a rope in his hand. Perhaps the stench of the horses brought them a premonition of evil, and the goats were alarmed. A twin bleating broke out, piercing and shrill as the ripping of cloth, as if a baby were being scorched by flames.
At this, restraint was shattered. The Jew kicked one of the goats sharply and Claude kicked the Jew. The peddler suddenly began giggling with all his might, his mouth gaping open from cheek to cheek. Then, radiating a politeness which was not of this world, he wiped his eyes dry with his sleeve and entreated the knights to accept everything, the goats and the merchandise, as a free gift in perpetuity, because men of every faith are ordered to love their fellow men, and there is one God over all of us. So he spoke, and his smile beneath his beard showed red as a wound. Count Guillaume de Touron made a sign with his finger that the gift should be accepted. The goats were taken, the sack was taken, and silence fell once more. Claude slowly raised his eyes toward the Count. The Count was gazing at the treetops, or through them to the patches of sky beyond. A whisper passed through the trees, thought better of it, and instantly fell quiet. Suddenly the Jew thrust his hand into the folds of his clothing and brought out a small packet.
“Take the money, too,” said the Jew, and held the packet out toward the Count. The knight took the packet with a weary gesture, closed his hand around it and concentrated his gaze as if trying hard to discover what hint the shabby cloth held for him. There was a remote sadness at that moment in Guillaume de Touron’s gaze. It was as if he were searching for something in the depths of his soul while being gradually shrouded in darkness. Perhaps he was filled with sorrow for himself. Finally he spoke, and he said with suppressed pain verging on warmth: “Claude.”
Claude said: “This is a Jew.”
The peddler said: “I have given you everything and now I shall go happily on my way and bless you.”
Claude said: “Now you shall not go and you shall not bless us.”
The peddler said: “You are going to kill me.”
He said this without fear and without surprise, but rather like a man who has been searching in vain for a complicated solution to a complicated problem and suddenly discovers a simple solution. And Claude Crookback replied softly: “Thou sayest.”
Once again silence filled the air. In the silence birds sang. Infected with the autumn the land stretched to the furthest distance, quiet and broad, quiet and cold. The Jew moved his head up and down a few times, concentrating, contemplating, looking as if he wanted to ask a question. And finally he asked: “How?”
“Go,” said Guillaume de Touron.
A moment later, as if mistrusting his voice, he wearily repeated: “Go.”
The Jewish peddler stood as if he had not heard. He began to speak, and thought better of it. He raised his arms wide, and let them drop. He turned. He walked slowly downhill as though he still carried the heavy sack on his back. He did not look around. Then he cautiously quickened his pace. Then, as he neared a bend in the road, he began to run, slowly, cunningly, bent. forward, dragging his feet like a sick man about to stumble and fall.
But when he reached the bend he gave a sudden bound and redoubled his pace, disappearing now with amazing speed, tracing with great care a zigzag course, and he did not stop running in zigzags even after the arrow hit him and lodged in his back between the shoulders. Then he stopped, twisted his arm around behind him, drew the arrow out of his flesh, and stood rocking backward and forward, holding the arrow before his eyes with both hands, as if a careful inspection were demanded of him. He stood staring at it until a second arrow dislodged the first from his grasp and pierced his forehead. Even now he stood where he was, and the arrow in his head stuck out in front, so that he looked like a stubborn ram, lowering his head to butt, his feet set firmly in the dust. Then the Jew uttered a single cry, not long and not very loud, and, as though he had finally decided to give in, he collapsed and fell on his back. He lay there without a tremor or a shudder.
The procession began to move on. Andrés Alvárez, the piper, traced a large cross with his finger over the fields and the forest and the expanse of sky. The women who followed the expedition stood for a moment beside the body, now growing cold, and one of them bent down and covered his face with the hem of his robe. Blood clung to the palms of her hands and the woman began to sob. Claude Crookback, who had moved for once to the rear of the procession, was overcome with a terrible compassion and walked behind the woman, comforting her in a soft voice with pious phrases, and so the two of them found some peace. In addition, that night they opened the peddler’s sack and among a mass of old rags they discovered bracelets and earrings and women’s sandals the like of which had never been seen in the region of Avignon, extraordinarily beautiful, which could be fastened and unfastened by means of a perfectly charming and fascinating yet simple little catch.
Autumn, a gray and patient monk, sent out silent, icy fingers and smoothed the face of the land. Cold winds began to blow down from the mountains to the north. They penetrated every covering, and the flesh stiffened at their touch. In several places toward dawn a fine, clear crust of ice had already begun to coat the surface of the water. The men’s breath froze; their lips turned blue and cracked.
But the heavy rains of winter still held back, and the Count still hoped to reach the coast before all the roads became waterlogged. The sea held out the promise of a change, of some kind of break. He looked forward to beholding in the sea the reflection of the Holy City, bristling with tall, insubstantial towers, glowing white as warm snow, ringed around with rocky crags and deserts, bathed in bright sunlight—and behind this light another light.
And yet sometimes the heart is smitten by a strange hesitation: Does Jerusalem really exist on the face of the earth, or is she perhaps nothing but a pure idea, which anyone who sets out to find in the substance will lose altogether?
They were passing through a monotonous gray landscape, like a long, low corridor. The melancholy of the frozen orchards around the villages was silent and terrible. To the outward eye all these plains stood open on every side as far as the horizon. And yet it was all blindly shuttered, and the travelers traveled on and on, and there was no way out.
Everything was overpowered by the fall. Sometimes the expedition marched for hours and hours on a moldering carpet of dead leaves. A venomous gloom took hold of men and beasts alike, a hidden, desperate gloom from which death itself would have come as a blessed relief. This soft, foul carpet, made up of rotting apple leaves and decomposing fodder, rustled crisply underfoot, producing a dull, monotonous melody which, after a few hours, imposed on knight and peasant alike a mood of silent madness.
So, like an inexorable nightmare, a silent procession advanced day after day over vast tracts of imaginary desert which at every gust of wind and every footstep sighed and murmured. The soul’s life-blood was on the point of shriveling and disintegrating.
No one now doubted the hidden presence of a Jew in the company. In camp at night servants and knights alike kept watch on one another, feigning sleep, starting at each footfall, craning to catch every sigh or whisper, crying out in their sleep, striving to decipher the cries of other sleepers. There were occasional brawls, and some took the precaution of sleeping with a knife clutched in their hand. Secret conspiracies were formed, allegations were made, and everyone girded himself with silence. A few vanished in the night and never reappeared. A servant slit the throat of another servant, was betrayed and beaten to death. Andrés Alvárez played on his pipe, but even his cheerful tunes tore at the heart and heightened the mood of despair.
All along the way there rose the stench of squalid villages. The cloying scent of a horse’s rotting carcass or the tainted odor of a man’s corpse decomposing in a field. Overhead stretched low, thick skies whose grayish hues strained toward a deeper shade of black.
In this envenomed world even the echo of distant bells was turned to keening. Such solitary birds as still remained stood motionless on the tips of wet branches, as if being gradually absorbed into the realm of the inanimate.
They crossed overgrown graveyards, trampling over gravestones coated with moss and lichen, sunk into the embrace of the heavy earth. At the head of these stones stood rough, crooked crosses, two sticks of wood held together by a wooden rivet. These moldy crosses would crumble at a slight touch.
When the expedition halted by water-holes to draw water, those who peered into the depths of the water might have caught sight of an element which was not water.
Far, far away on the steep mountain slopes one could see, for an instant, between patches of streaming mist, the vague outlines of stone-built castles—lingering monasteries, perhaps, or the remains of ancient fortifications ruined even before the coming of the faith. Below them the river and its tributaries rushed furiously in their tangled courses, as if they too were desperately trying to escape.
Over everything there came at dusk a desolate, sinister power of incredible malignity, the screeching of birds of prey or wildcats. These regions were gradually being coated in rust, rotting with it to the point of death. And so Jerusalem ceased to be regarded as a destination, as the arena of glorious deeds. A change took place. Men would break the long silence to say, “In Jerusalem.”
And one man among them began to realize, with the gradual dawning of an inner illumination, that the Jerusalem they were seeking was not a city but the last buttress of a guttering vitality.
This chapter of Claude’s chronicle bears unambiguous witness to the force of the destructive powers which continuously emanated from the hidden presence of a malicious element that had insinuated itself among the crusaders. No longer content with an external watch, they now appointed an internal watch as well. A few knights were detailed to eavesdrop unobtrusively. Other knights were instructed to keep watch on these. Claude Crookback was in a position to keep those whom he mistrusted away from the Count’s presence and to surround him with those who met with his favor. Conspiracies, false accusations, and secret intrigues were rampant. In this thick, dank atmosphere of suspicion and malignant terror Claude blossomed and flourished like some swamp plant. And yet he too was infected by the thickening fear.
There is a stranger in our midst. Every night as we all call on the name of Jesus Christ one of us calls with a false voice and that man is Christ’s enemy. One night in the third watch a hidden hand extinguished all the fires, and in the darkness there came a shout in a language which was not the language of Christian men. An enemy of Christ is concealed among us, a wolf among God’s flock. That same hand which put out the fires in the night is also killing our horses, which are dying in agony one after another from an ailment which is completely unknown where we come from. As we approach the villages the villagers are warned in advance to conceal their provisions, their women, and their horses in the forest. The Jews everywhere sense our approach, and the countryside, which is hostile to us, shelters them. There is an evil in our midst. Someone among us is not one of us. He has been sent to deliver us up to the forces of defilement. O God, have mercy upon us, grant us a sign before we all perish, body and soul. Is it not for Thy sake that we walk this path of hardship and suffering? Is it not to Thy city that we are journeying—and if we do not end there, where shall we end?
The spirit of our men is already weakened by fear of the intrigue which is being fomented in our midst, and there are some on the fringes of our contingent who seek to turn back the remaining horses and return home empty-handed. Our lord Guillaume de Touron now rides all alone some way ahead of the party and no longer looks around, as if it is all one to him whether the others are still following him or not, as if he is traveling on alone to Jerusalem.
Three mornings ago the Count drew up all the travelers in a row, beginning with the knights and concluding with the servants, the hangers-on, and the women, and subjected everyone to a penetrating scrutiny. He ended by suddenly calling on the Jew to fall to his knees at that instant, in that very spot, whoever he might be. Then, in total silence, he turned his back on the men and mounted his mare, slowly, as if he were ill. At first light the next day one of the women was found with her throat cut and with the point of the cross which she wore round her neck buried in her breast. It was I myself who closed her eyes and drew the pointed cross out of her flesh, without wiping the blood off it. O God, where are You leading Your flock, and what will become of us tomorrow and the day after?
And again Claude writes in his chronicle, in a spirit of humility and submission to divine judgment:
In the course of this morning my lord the Count summoned me to follow him to the other side of the hill. When we were out of sight of eavesdroppers my lord said to me, ‘Claude, you know; why do you keep quiet?’ And I swore in the name of Christ, and in the name of my lord’s late sister, who was my father’s wife before he married my mother, I swore that I did not know, and that I was very much afraid. Then my lord the Count continued in a voice at whose memory my heart is rent with love and terror, ‘Claude—are you really Claude?’
I record here the words with which I have cried out to God all day: O God, behold us: We are being consumed by evil. Deliver us, O Lord; Thou hearest and Thou canst prevail. Sinners though we be, have compassion upon us. Are we not journeying toward Thee day and night?
Happy is the man who pours his heart out in his prayer: Even if he cry out of the depths his prayer is answered.
A few days later, when the expedition had made a detour around the walls of Tortona and was pressing on eastward, the plague left the horses and even the weather grew slightly warmer. The farmers yielded large numbers of horses which sufficed for riding until better ones could be found. In one of the villages the three Celts succeeded in sniffing out great hoards of good provisions, cheeses and rye and fodder, all in one cellar, with hardly any bloodshed. Along the way we came upon two mule drivers carrying casks of wine, and we enjoyed the wine for several days. We also met a mendicant monk who sprinkled us with holy water and renewed the blessings of the Church.
And so it seemed as if our fortunes had taken a turn for the better. We did not stint our prayers and thanksgivings. Even the winter rains did not only continue to hold off, but even receded into the distance; for four days a benevolent sun shone down upon us. The Count distributed silver coins. The sound of singing was heard again as we set out in the morning, and Andrés Alvárez, the piper, played us merry tunes on his pipe. And at the same time we began to draw nearer to communities of Jews.
We began to draw nearer to communities of Jews, and our days grew brighter. Activity brought with it a new spirit: Discipline improved, and industry and inventiveness reappeared among us. Some of the blazes we lit fired our hearts with joy, and the thrill of the hunt roused our slumbering senses.
We were not too ambitious. We left the Jews of the towns to stronger contingents. Count Guillaume de Touron merely passed through the remoter districts, clearing, as it were, the outer extremities of the ground—the Jews of a forgotten village or a wayside inn, or a mill hidden in a valley. Thus there fell into his hands small bands of Jews of the runaway or wandering variety. Even so, the expedition did not interrupt its eastward progress, and did not turn aside to track down fugitives or to scent out booty. They ploughed a single, straight furrow, not too broad. They did not even pause to look back and see what had been accomplished and what remained to be done. The Count imposed a strict discipline on his men, and refrained from bloodlust. That is not to say that they avoided plunder, only that the Count forbade his men to take pleasure in it—and the suppressed pleasure whispered seductively.
Claude mentions in his narrative one Jewish woman, resembling a she-wolf, who, with her baby, was rooted out of her lair in the depths of a haystack. She snarled, and her fangs were whiter and sharper than human teeth. She hissed violently, as if she meant to bite or spit venom. Her breast heaved under her brown dress with a turbulence such as Claude had witnessed before only in the throes of physical ecstasy or in women who had seen a vision of a saint demanding that they throw themselves on the fire.
This Jewess even managed to keep at bay the ring of Christians which had closed around her. Not a man dared to approach within reach of claw or tooth. She stood alone in the center, and her face wore an expression which resembled a yawn. A second glance showed that this was no yawn.
She began to wheel around slowly, bent over, the baby clutched in the claws of one hand, the other held out in front, the fingers hooked like the talons of a bird of prey. Her movement suggested that of a scorpion or a crab. Even if Claude imagined that this Jewess was about to pounce and tear out their eyes with her nails, she did not do so. Instead, she suddenly hurled her screaming child into the arms of the youngest of the three Celts, and threw herself down, rolling in the dust as if she had already been slaughtered. She did all this in complete silence, without pleading or crying, but in a fierce convulsion. Claude Crookback struggled with all his might to suppress the sobs rising in his throat. A blind, feverish urge almost forced him to fall to the ground and roll in the dust like her and kiss the soles of her feet and be trampled on by the soles of her feet. This urge burned in his veins like a flaming fury, and yet it was not fury. Hot tears ran down his beard as he put this she-wolf out of her misery with a short, sharp blow, thus sparing her the agonies of a long drawn-out death and relieving her of the ugly sight of the crushing of the child’s head, a sight both sordid and distasteful to a sensitive soul.
The region was dotted with Jewish communities. There were some towns here which had opened their doors wide to them, in defiance of the ancient curse. These Jews had put down deep roots to drink the innermost sap, and were flourishing vigorously. They were endowed with prodigious powers of suckling and growing. In these villages numerous families of Jews had spread, buying and selling, hiring and letting. They had a total monopoly of the oil and flax. Slowly, calculating and relentless, they were expanding into wool and wax, putting out feelers toward perfumes and ales, timber and spices.
Outwardly they were calm, but a closer inspection would have betrayed a nervous muscular spasm in their faces, like the ripples on the skin of a deer standing in feigned repose, poised for flight. Our language flowed from the mouths of these Jews as smooth as oil. Our silver seemed to pass into their hands of its own accord, following the natural tendency of things to roll downhill.
Thus the Jews were past masters at gathering and hoarding, exchanging one thing for another at a favorable moment and concealing one thing inside another in times of apprehension. They seemed devilishly dexterous, evasive by the very nature of their breed. The very ground seemed to become pliant under their feet, and they exuded over everything around them a kind of sticky, transparent resin. They could arouse sympathy or confidence, terror or amusement in the Christians at their will. They were the pipers and we were the pipe in their hands, we were the dancing bear.
Many peasants in these regions put their faith in the Jews. Knights enticed followers to accompany them to Jerusalem with silver borrowed from the Jews. The wounds of our Lord and Saviour opened anew at the sight, and His blood spilled afresh. Even great lords, even priests and bishops were accustomed in these parts to invite Jews into their very hearths, and unawares they slowly sold their souls. Some even trusted the Jews with power. So it happened that hereabouts certain Jews had risen to such heights as to be able to exercise power behind the scenes, and to pass on moral contagion to the Christians. Twice Guillaume de Touron’s band was met on the way by armed guards or even tainted priests, their swords raised as a barrier between him and the Jews, setting at nought God’s curse.
In short, these Jews had raised up a shadow-Judea at the foot of the Cross, spreading all around, extending the reign of hostile forces into Christian lands. To borrow a simile which reappears several times in Claude Crookback’s chronicle, the Jews were like a band of strange minstrels wandering noisily through a primeval forest. Undoubtedly there was some sweet and desolate enchantment in their music, but the forest had a music of its own, deep and dim, and it would not tolerate for long another tune.
One day Guillaume de Touron rode at the head of his men into a group of hovels, on the edge of a small village called Ariogolo, which were inhabited by Jews.
As often happened, they had scented what was coming and had escaped into the forest. A single spokesman came to meet the knights, to negotiate a ransom, and to obtain sympathy. He also wanted to rescue from the fire a house full of old books, some of which, he claimed, were a thousand years old. Jewish books, written backward.
This man was lean and lanky; his beard was fair and his shoulders strong. Even in his manner there was nothing to suggest his base origin. His movements were few and economical, he seemed calm, and he spoke in the measured tone of one who loves words and is their master. He came out of the house toward the leading horsemen and inquired who was in command. Before they had time to speak or move his glance rested on the Count and he said, “He is the one.” Then he strode boldly between the horses, almost brushing them with his shoulders, took up his stand in front of our lord Guillaume de Touron and said: “I was looking for you, my lord. This is your expedition.”
The Knight squinted, weighing with his glance the figure before him, and immediately perceived the strength of his determination. He twisted his lips and said: “You were looking for me.”
“I was looking for you, my lord.”
“What are you offering, Jew, and what do you want to take?”
“A houseful of holy books. And if you are in great need of money then all the rest of our houses. Payment in cash.”
A faint smile, grim and rare, passed over Guillaume de Touron’s face and vanished. For an instant a peasant-like expression, full of greed and loathing, played around his lips. Then his glance froze. Coldly he said: “Gold. Copper coin has no currency in the places to which I am going.”
The man said: “Great quantities of gold.”
Guillaume de Touron said: “You, Jew, stand on the house which you want to save from the fire, and the fire, by God’s grace, will choose what to consume and what to leave untouched.”
The Jew said: “Very well. You set fire to the southern side. The wind is blowing from the north. By God’s grace there is a broad stream in between. The fire, as you say, will choose, by God’s grace, what to consume and what to leave untouched.”
The Count paused. Once again a dry smile flitted across his face. Then, twice as stern, he said: “My dear Jew, you are not afraid. Why are you not afraid of me?”
As though in sudden sympathy the Jew uttered a short, bright, laugh, carefully modulated by a deep insight, and answered: “I give, my lord, and you want to take.”
“And if I take and then kill and burn.”
“But you will swear, my lord, in the name of your Saviour. Before you swear you shall not see the gold.”
“And if I take by force, Jew?”
“You and I, my lord, are in the hands of a power which is greater than you or me.”
“Well then,” said Guillaume de Touron, in a dark tone of voice. “Well then, give me the gold. Right away. You have spoken long enough. Give it to me now.”
As the Count uttered these words the nearest horsemen began to touch the Jew lightly with the tips of their lances, as if testing the thickness of the bark on a tree trunk.
The man said: “The gold is buried in the field and the spot is buried in my heart.”
Guillaume de Touron said: “Then get up and go to the place. Now.”
The Jew shook his head in resignation, as if disappointed at the clumsy narrow-mindedness displayed by his interlocutor. He said with exaggerated deliberateness, in the tone one would use with a stubborn peasant: “But my lord, I have not yet had your lordship’s oath. Your time is short and your way is long.”
“Go,” said the Count. “Go and lead me to the house you spoke of.”
The handsome Jew motioned with his chin.
“That is the one. The books are there.”
The knight raised his voice slightly, and calling to Claude Crookback he said: “Claude, have the house and all the houses burned, and see that the Jew is not killed quickly, but slowly and patiently, and meanwhile tell them to turn the horses out into the field to graze and to send the servants down to the river to wash themselves before Mass—yesterday they stank to high heaven.”
They began to beat the Jew at noon. Toward evening they branded him with red-hot irons. Then they soused him in salt water and asked him about Judas and Pontius and Caiaphas. They took him out of the salt water and crushed his testicles, as Claude had read in one of the books when he was a boy, and as it was written in the same book they made him drink the salty water in which he had been immersed. Later, when they were dealing with his fingers, they questioned him on the subject of the types and allegories of Jesus Christ of which the Old Testament is full. As the twilight came on they put out both his eyes, and then, finally, he opened his mouth and asked them whether if he showed them the place where the treasure was buried, they would promise to kill him instantly, and Claude Crookback gave his word.
In the dark the treasure was dug up, and it turned out that the Jew had not lied and the treasure was very rich indeed. Then the Count told Claude to carry out his promise. The hour, he said, was advanced and it was not fitting to delay any longer the time of evening prayer, because the fire, which had burned right through the village, was dying down and the smoke was interfering with their breathing and making their eyes smart. And so they thrust a lance through the tortured body from back to chest. But the Jew went on crawling blindly hither and thither, and his blood spurted out, and he continued murmuring. So they beat him over the head with an ax-haft and called him dead. The Jew, however, was not dead. He sighed deeply through the hole in his lungs and large pink bubbles came out of him and burst. Then they stabbed him again in the chest, but apparently they missed his heart. The broken relic of a man raised a leg in the air and kicked about furiously. The people who were crowded around him wiped the sweat from their brows and consulted with one another, then ordered the servants to throw the tortured body onto the smoldering fire.
But the ignorant serfs were already seized with superstitious panic, suspecting witchcraft or portents, and stubbornly refused to touch it.
Finally Andrés Alvárez, the piper, drew near, he who carried always a heavy stone tied around his neck to mortify his flesh. Alvárez fetched a long beam and pushed and rolled the remains of the palpitating body into a shallow pool. The spokesman of the Jews lay in the water gasping out bubbles. Even after the evening prayers he had not given up the ghost.
The Count gave orders to put off halting for the night and to ride on by the light of the moon, for the moon had come out, yellow and round and of enormous size. I gave my word, thought Claude, and I did not keep it, because the task did not lie within human power, and if it was the hand of the Almighty, then who am I? Not a leaf falls to the ground without the action of a purpose, and it is not for us to know what the purpose is. So it was by God’s purpose that our Saviour died on the Cross, for it was God’s will that the traitor should betray Christ so that the Saviour should bear our sin and carry our afflictions.
For four days more Guillaume de Touron and his men continued to plow the wild earth with their faith and to root out the hostile forces from the world. And at the end of four days, with fists of ice fury, the great rains of winter began to beat down.
The great rains of winter beat down violently and smote the earth. The vault of heaven itself seemed to collapse as the gray fragments of lead came down. The storm howled wildly in the forest, uprooting ancient trees, shattering roofs, and whipping the surface of the lakes into a frenzy.
So furious was the gale that it caught up wild ducks and hurled them against the mountainside. The water, usually a mild and submissive element, suddenly clenched into a fist and rose up against the massive rocks, toppling them with a single blow. All the rivers ran riot, seething and storming their banks.
Lightning flashed frenziedly from horizon to horizon, drawing dazzling, drunken designs over the whole width of the heavens. The thunder, in its turn, responded with its weird and menacing amen.
Now the wind would wrest the steeple from a village church and sport with it, carrying it off entire. The airborne bell flew swiftly past, ringing high and forlorn above hills, rivers, and forests until it was lost in the distance.
In the midst of the maelstrom at least one sign of order or design could be dimly discerned: All these tormenting forces worked with one accord toward rendering everything round, eliminating and exterminating anything which was pointed with all the violence of their stream, bending mercilessly everything upright or projecting, tearing at whatever was angular and forcing it to become a curve.
The tempest eroded and rounded off the heaps of dust, the breakers on the lakes, the backs of men scurrying with their last strength to find shelter.
Those wild powers which had burst forth to subdue the whole land were totally hostile to cross, steeple, and lance, horse and man.
In the afternoon the wind veered round. The air was filled with large snowflakes. After the snow came the hail. By dusk the earth shone white. All night long the lightning played on the surface of the snow with a dazzling flame of blue. Next morning the snow continued to fall and piled up deeper still. Whatever the storm had left standing the snow rounded and curved. The whole land was silently subdued and transformed. Nothing could stand in the way of the hostile forces. A new power reigned over the earth.
In that pallid glare the whole battered company fell to its knees in the snow and prayed to the Saviour. Lost as they were in that luminous wilderness, shrouded in banks of gray clouds swept by the wind, perhaps there took shape in some of their minds a fleeting vision of Jerusalem.
They went on walking till dusk, seeking shelter from those simple elements which buffeted the flesh and penetrated deeper to conquer the sensitive soul: The pouring rain, the knife-edged wind, the blinding light, the silence. Everything was stripped bare. A handful of wandering fugitives. A long flight. A trap.
In the afternoon the wanderers found a roof to shelter them. This was a broken-down abandoned monastery, a stone fortress on the rocks of a remote mountain slope. Many years before, perhaps in times of plague, the last monks had fled to die elsewhere.
The building was constructed on an absurd, melancholy plan. A steeply-inclined wall, enclosing no other building but simply closing in on itself, in whose thickness were dug myriad low cells and warrens of winding passages, spiral staircases, recesses, doorways, underground vaults lost in darkness. There was also a gloomy chapel, disproportionately long, like a narrow, curved corridor leading nowhere but to its own end. The very form of the place was consumed with contradiction.
Neglect had eaten away at everything, at the crude stone walls and the Latin inscriptions, broken by cracks and crevices, which spoke darkly of the resurrection of the dead and the delusion of earthly delights.
On the door of the monastery one could make out a notice written in the local dialect addressed to would-be invaders, appealing to their religious feelings, cursing them violently and warning of the danger of plague. The writing was being eaten away by mold and rust.
Guillaume de Touron and his men broke down the door and went inside. The Count gave orders to unload, light a fire, and shelter here until the roads became passable. He was troubled or distracted as he issued his instructions, interspersing orders to ration provisions, take good care of the horses, and clean the tackle, with vague reflections on the subject of walking on water, urgent messages to the Greeks, remarks about sleep as a simple escape from space and time, adding an obscure comment on the blight which had affected the vines and the rotting of the lower layers of earth underneath the top-soil.
The men did not speak, but the walls began to make their voices heard. While the Count was talking, the passages, doorways, and recesses sent back a hollow echo. They re-echoed and amplified a word here and there to a suspicious degree. When Guillaume de Touron finished speaking, the building intensified the silence.
The walls were all in the grip of a gradual decay. Weeds burrowed in the crevices of the stone, nibbling greedily at the rot, their bloated growth forcing up the flagstones, and as they burrowed they almost seemed to squelch noisily, as if the building were composed of marrow bones at which the plants were lustily sucking.
And the smells. A pungent stench of ancient incense lingering in the cracks in the stones came and went by turns.
The servants dispersed into the recesses and passageways, not searching, not finding, startled by meeting each other suddenly in the twists of the tunnels, trying the echo and being filled with terror at the result, lighting fires in the hollows. The smoke spread out along the ground, disturbing scurrying insects and night birds or monstrous bats. At the end of several days it was impossible to count the men or keep them in order. One or two were stricken with silent madness, wandering in the dark passages without a torch until their shouts died down and they were forgotten. All count was lost of the days.
Outside the loopholes the realm of winter stretched to the far distance, endless tracts of snow on which the howling wind played a melody of darkness. The torrents of water had broken down all the bridges. Clearly there was no hope of escape until some change took place.
All day the men played dice. When it grew dark they lit a fire, which they fed by tearing off the doors and hacking away the framework with their axes. After that they burned the furniture and fittings of the chapel. Finally, they even began to break down the roof-beams to make a bigger fire to ward off the cold draughts which blew in through the roof that they were progressively demolishing.
These roof-beams were damp and musty. The fire drew out of them a venomous, gnawing effervescence, as if people were being roasted alive each night.
And so, subjected to the influence of idleness and boredom, the servants began to go to pieces. They began to degenerate at first from excess of ale, and when supplies of ale ran out they degenerated twice as fast from want of it. In the absence of farmers’ wives it soon became evident that the women who accompanied the expedition were too few. They were squabbled over and squabbled with until some of them were killed and the rest fled into the snow. One of them killed three of her companions before they found her hiding in an alcove and slit her throat.
Even after the women had left the men did not mend their ways. The sooty walls were covered with obscene drawings. Here and there, when no one was watching, a man would desecrate one of the crosses, until they had to make do with the crosses of iron and feed the flames with the remains of the wooden ones.
Only the divine office was observed by everyone with an enthusiasm bordering on the fanatical. Morning and evening they would emerge from their various hiding-places and gather together to pray ecstatically. On the days which they considered, according to their halting reckoning, to be Sundays they prayed devoutly half the day. The lower elements burst into noisy weeping as they prayed. Sometimes Guillaume de Touron would deliver a feverish, rambling address, exhorting his men to love him, to love one another, to love the horses which were perishing from the cold, to love their own flesh and their own blood, since their flesh was not their flesh, nor their blood their blood. Claude Crookback, for his part, was steadily amassing a power of his own. He encouraged some of the servants to come to him and confess their old sins, all of which occasioned him lunatic delight. His chronicle bears witness to a morbid fascination with the nature of the body and its peculiarities.
Days and weeks went by. The last of the better elements in the party were disappearing into the snow to find their own way home. Those who remained battled with hordes of ravens which had also taken refuge there from the cold. They brought them down with arrows and stones, but others kept coming until the soul grew weary with them.
Outside, day after day, the soft, slushy snow piled up on the ground, and at night the wind beat relentlessly at the walls, dislodging loose stones and beams.
Worst of all, the Count was changing. Compassion took hold of him day by day. Something strange, a kind of hesitancy, tenderness almost, suddenly came over him.
He would wake from a long sleep (he dozed for long periods of the day and night), get up, and begin to perform acts of kindness. In the first place, he shook off all his old suspicions and seemed to take pride in the handful of men who were accompanying him to Jerusalem. Secondly, he sought opportunities of exercising forgiveness. If he saw one of the men weakening, he would lay a hand on his shoulder and speak briefly and softly against sin. He began to address some of the more despicable characters as “my brother.” From time to time he would pay frenzied visits to his mare Mistral, give her water to drink from his own cupped palms, and groom her with his fingers. On one occasion he assembled everybody in the broken-down chapel, held a kind of Mass, and solemnly adopted Claude Crookback as his son. If Claude had not restrained him, he would have gone on to adopt several more of those present. To judge by his appearance he was a sick man, but in terms of physical strength he was stronger than any man there, the three Celts included. It occurred to him to erect a sort of dais at one end of the chapel, and for several days he moved stones and fetched heavy planks. Then he suddenly stopped, and instead tried to induce the most ignorant men to learn Latin, and give up speaking “those Jewish languages.” Once he fell to his knees, took off his shirt, and wrapped it around the foot of the oldest of the three Celts, a remarkable action, since the foot, though naturally unwashed, was in no way injured.
He demanded the constant companionship of Claude Crookback. At first he implored Claude to regale him with extracts from the writings of the ancient sages. After a time, he would wake up in a panic and call for Claude, and eventually he was unable to fall asleep without resting his head in Claude’s lap. Claude, as was his wont, would talk on and on, and since he met with no rebuke he talked even more than usual. Day by day, authority passed from the Count to his adopted son, so that soon he could starve or flog men at his own discretion as the fancy took him. In his chronicle he wrote: “Earth, men, snow, suffering, death, all of these are but an allegory of the Kingdom of Heaven, toward which I am going, in a straight path, turning aside neither to right nor to left, and with a joyful spirit.”
Then the snow stopped, and once more the winter rain fell day and night, in a tedious, unrelenting downpour. The snow began to melt on the hilltops. Thick mud covered the countryside. The cold became damper, a fetid, poisonous frost. Here and there traces of the road reappeared, winding among the hills. The road was waterlogged. Even in moments of despair, it was impossible to consider resuming the journey.
Within the ruined monastery supplies of food began to fail. Once or twice knives were drawn when the rotten rations were distributed. A humiliating disease broke out, causing all of them unbearable sufferings and torments.
One night a pack of wolves stole in, wild with hunger. Silently the wolves swarmed through the dark and winding passages, broke into the cellars, and tore the last remaining horses limb from limb. If the scent of the wolves had not roused the three Celts from their slumber, we should all have been in danger of our lives. The Celts leaped to their feet and fell on the beasts of prey with lances, torches, shouts, knives, and stones. In the firelight even the men’s expression seemed wolflike.
After this incident Claude Crookback instituted a night watch. The men would gather together at night to sleep surrounded by heaps of glowing embers. The guards prevented the wolves from creeping in again, but they were powerless to prevent the terror caused by the howling which was borne in on the night wind, piercing the very marrow of the soul. And the soul contracted and responded with an inner howling of its own.
Early one morning, they caught sight in the distance of a dim form moving across the snow. It was a traveler, moving past slowly on the horizon, holding himself erect, feeling his way, a tall man wrapped in a black cloak, his head hidden by a black cowl. A wandering ascetic, perhaps, or a mendicant monk. The form did not respond to our cries and did not alter its course. The stranger passed before our gaze, pressing on slowly through the soft snow toward the opposite horizon. Perhaps he was deaf, or bound by a vow of silence. Besides him no human form appeared all through the winter.
The cold grew more and more intense, stretching to the very limits of its strength. The men’s bodies were covered with chilblains. Those horses which had been rescued from the fangs of the wolves perished in one day. Their flesh was eaten half-raw, because there was hardly any fuel left to feed the fire.
A spirit of rebelliousness gradually reared its head, restrained as yet but menacing. Servants, their eyes inflamed, whispered together in corners. If Claude Crookback walked past they would suddenly fall silent or hasten to roll their dice. Whispers stalked about in the night darkness.
One day Andrés Alvárez risked his life climbing to the top of the crumbling belfry. He succeeded in setting the great bells to rights and in fitting them with new ropes. He believed in the power of the bells to drive out the spirit of defilement and to put new heart into the men. But when Andrés slithered down from the belfry and pulled on the ropes, the chimes which rang out were broken, ailing, blood-chilling. And from every corner of the tumble-down monastery arose waves of echoes, hoarse and pitiless.
And so they abandoned the bells and bade Andrés Alvárez, the piper, pipe away and still the murmurs of the silence.
Andrés’s playing could stir the heartstrings. His melodies caressed his hearers like a hand. Something stirred and softened within them. The firelight flickered gloomily on the circle of shadowy faces, coarse-featured and shaggy. As the notes rang out, a kind of spasm or passing shudder played round those cracked lips. The tenderness was almost more than they could bear. Like stones frozen in a sheet of ice, the slightest touch of warmth would shatter them. Andrés Alvárez roused in them a kind of craving, a repressed yearning. Suddenly someone in the circle of listeners would burst out screaming as if he had been stabbed. It was the scream of a wounded man who recovers consciousness and all of a sudden becomes aware of his pain.
His tunes were simple ones, such as one hears in the country in summertime, and from time to time Andrés would break into a soft, warm song, like the songs which peasant girls sing when they fancy that no one is listening. Some of the men joined in and sang with Andrés as if their lives had reopened with the song. Even Guillaume de Touron was stirred. This dwindling man sank his chin on his chest, and a last light passed through him.
He remembered his wife, not the lady Louise of Beaumont, who had died that summer of falling sickness, but his first wife, Anna Maria. She was only a child when she was brought and presented to him, and he too was a mere lad. She was beautiful but silent as he first saw her standing in the gateway, he looking at her, she looking down at her slippers or at the ground. And he recalled now, in this twilight, how he took her hand and led her out onto the estate, to the orchards and vineyards and pastures, and then into the woods, as his forefathers before him had been accustomed to lead their brides on their arrival. He recalled her dress, the color of oleander, and the startled look in her eyes, and the ripples of panic racing over her skin as over that of a quiet young filly. He recalled her prolonged silence, and his own silence, and the singing of the birds, the tree tops dyed by the rays of the sinking sun, the blossoms in the orchards with their scents, for it was spring, and the tranquility of the streams was caressed by the scents of evening. Anna Maria walked behind him, and he let go of her hand, which was trembling. Then, in a frenzy, he suddenly determined to make her laugh. He started neighing like a horse and howling like a jackal, went down on all fours and imitated a deer in flight and a bear in pursuit, then suddenly threw himself from a high rock into the stream below, emerged dripping wet, and fell panting at her feet, giving a perfect imitation of a dog begging to be petted. How pure was that distant silence! Then, giving in, she laughed and touched his hand with her fingertips, and he, a wet, fawning dog, nuzzled her hand with his face. As his lips touched her fingers it happened, and Anna Maria said, “You, you, you.”
Guillaume de Touron closed both his eyes and gazed blindly at Andrés Alvárez, the piper. His heart told him that this place was strange and that even Jerusalem was not the goal of this journey but of another journey, no journey at all, no City of God, and perhaps Andrés is the hidden Jew, or perhaps not Andrés but he himself, for truth is so pure and only the eyes are blind, fire is not fire, snow is not snow, stones are thoughts and the wind is wine and wine is silence, prayers are fingers, pain is a bridge and death is home, is the touch, is the warm tinkling song “You, you, you.”
Outside, as a counterpoint to Andrés’s melody, snow and despair once more fell softly, smothering everything with a kiss of unbelievable tenderness. So it was that Count Guillaume de Touron stopped the music and said:
“Claude, this piper is not one of us.”
“Father, have you not known Andrés from his youth? Did his grandfather not dandle you on his knee when you were a child?”
The Count said:
“Claude, why do you insist on shielding this Jew from me? He is hounding us, and it is his fault that we are lost.”
The Count, deep in thought, said sorrowfully, as if from a distance:
“Andrés, you are dear to me, you are a dearly-beloved Jew Andrés, and I must kill you so that you die.”
Andrés Alvárez did not plead for his life, but curled up with his head between his knees and did not move. The Count rose, took up his spear, and stood beside Andrés. He leaned on the spear, his eyes closed. He was pondering or hesitating. He leaned harder on the spear, and a sigh escaped from his throat. He leaned harder still, the spear passed through his body and, as if clasped in an invisible embrace, he collapsed and lay still.
After the Count’s death there were two more flights into the snow. Most of the servants vanished, taking with them what little food was left. Claude Crookback, leader of a party of nine crusaders, wrote, with a trembling hand, his eyes blazing out of a beard smeared with saliva: “The miracle is delayed. Claude is humbled to the dust, the saintly Claude is plunged into the depths of the abyss, but beyond the mire there shines a light, and I am steadily making my way toward it, to be purged in it till the very flesh perishes.”
The horror of those last nights. The faces of men whose teeth are rotted, whose lips are eaten away by the cold. They shone white as skulls in the light of the night. The screaming. The laughter. They were turned to beasts, mauling their flesh with their teeth, falling to emaciated knees to worship the lightning which flashed across the night sky. And the visions. A luminous procession above their heads, figures of pallid ghosts, glimmering from the furthermost frozen distance.
On the last night there was a sign. Through the holes in the roof the dark clouds were seen to part slightly, revealing faint stars, and beyond the stars, a halo.
And so, finally, without horses, without clothes or provisions, without women and without wine, the cold tearing at their bare feet, to rise up and go to Jerusalem. Surely it was thus that they should have set out at the start.
Nine quivering silhouettes, Claude Crookback, trudging in front, Andrés, the three brothers, four servants whose minds were long since unhinged, through meadows shining white from horizon to horizon, walking over the white earth and under a white sky, on and on.
Not turning homeward—they had given up all thought of human habitations. Not even toward Jerusalem, which is not a place but disembodied love. Shedding their bodies, they made their way, growing ever purer, into the heart of the music of the bells and beyond to the choirs of angels and yet further, leaving behind their loathsome flesh and streaming onward, a jet of whiteness on a white canvas, an abstract purpose, a fleeting vapor, perhaps peace.